The news media seems content to use Pope Francis’s visit as a way to hammer on Republicans who, to them, “oppose” the Pope’s agenda, including environmentalism, support for immigration and solving income inequality. Now, while that assumption is objectively incorrect — most Republicans aren’t opposed to such things, just the government’s role (and, by extension, the government’s presumed effectiveness) in solving such problems — coverage of Papal activities that don’t conveniently fit with the media narrative of “today’s progressive Pope” has fallen by the wayside.
Far from the liberal prophet he’s been proclaimed to be since stepping foot on American soil, the Pope, who will make some 18 speeches in the course of his visit, has encouraged deep and critical thinking about both the cultural and political state of the American nation. Here are a few details of the Pope’s visit that have somehow escaped the roving eye of the Fourth Estate, but might put much of what the Pope has said on his visit into context:
1. The Pope may have made some stops along the way, but his final destination is the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The Pope will make a planned visit to the World Meeting of Families, a huge event for Catholics from around the globe, designed to celebrate the gift of marriage and the essential societal component, the nuclear family. The gathering, which is going on right now and extends through the Pope’s visit (including a Mass for families this weekend), features relics of familial patron saints like St. Gianna Beretta Molla (a mid-century Italian doctor that chose the life of her unborn child over cancer treatment that might have ended her pregnancy) and Pope St. John Paul II. The event is designed to counteract the cultural attack on family life, to promote the institution of marriage and to encourage young people to have children, in the face of a world that promotes radical individualism and selfishness.
2: The Pope made a “secret” (i.e. unscheduled) visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are facing litigation from the Obama Administration over their right to free expression. Wednesday night, as the media was digesting the Pope’s speech on the White House lawn (according to most, it centered around “climate change,” though the actual speech spent no more than a few seconds on the issue, at best, with its most ardent statements made, rather, on religious freedom), the Pope snuck out to visit the Little Sisters of the Poor, a small order of Catholic nuns engaged in litigation with the Obama Administration over the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate. The Pope said, explicity, that his visit was to show support for the religious order as they battle to maintain their rights of conscience, and against the Obamacare mandate requiring them to provide birth control, free of charge, to employees – an act which runs counter to the Catholic religious dictate against unnatural and chemical birth control methods.
3. The Pope talked extensively about subsidiarity in his speech to Congress and even praised capitalism. Praise for capitalism was explicit in the Pope’s address to Congress, but he also used a more unfamiliar term that many commentators missed, but is central to Catholic theories on economics and political organization. “Subsidiarity” is the concept which, loosely, entails assigning care for various societal ills to the level of community that is best suited to address those ills. For instance, the family is the first line of defense, and what it cannot solve can be solved by community organizations. What those cannot solve alone can be solved in communion with local and state governments. Only when no other level of government is equipped to handle a societal ill does it become the problem of the Federal government. That is why family is so important to the Catholic faith — it is literally the building block of all economies and political systems. Pope Francis used the word with abandon, expressing his belief that such a system has, in effect, collapsed, and that care must be taken to preserve not just the family, but the religious and community organizations that serve the poor. It is the responsibility of the people, not necessarily the government, to seek peace and justice in society.
4. The Pope canonized an American saint, St. Junipero Serra. Wednesday’s Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was not simply an outdoor cause for celebration. Pope Francis performed the very first official canonization of a saint on American soil, honoring the missionary who built the foundations of Catholicism in the West, (now Saint) Fr. Junipero Serra. Keeping with the theme of his visit, the Pope honored Serra for his commitment to bringing faith to California’s indigenous peoples and settlers alike, and for establishing many missions across the west to help form and sustain developing communities.
5. The Pope skipped lunch with Congressional leaders to eat with DC’s poor. The Pope isn’t political. He may have political ideas, as any major world leader, but he was careful not to take sides in any legislative battle. In fact, when he was offered the opportunity to speak directly with a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders over lunch today, he declined. Instead, he said he would eat with DC’s poor and dialogue with the city’s underprivileged and low-income families. The gesture is not just kind, it is symbolic. The Pope is very clear that doing good in society, addressing the needs of those around us, helping the poor and correcting our cultural ills is a hands-on job. While political leaders have their place and vocation, mere legislation will not work to address the Pope’s concerns unless it is accompanied by good works.
I’m not sure this quells the uncertainty many people on both sides of the aisle have over Pope Francis, but it should be very clear that the Pope is calling all Americans, not just Catholics, to actively serve their fellow humans. As he said in his speech, we would do well to remember the Golden Rule, and to live our beliefs, not just consider them.
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